In November, voters will pass judgment on a proposal to legalize marijuana in Massachusetts. Right now, just over five months in advance of that vote, I’m not sure how I’ll vote. I’m, frankly, surprised to be in this position. Until recently, I would have assumed that supporting legalization was “a no brainer.” Like many, I was prepared to assume, to quote from an article by Joshua Miller in the March 21 Boston Globe, that legalization “would quickly begin to phase out the black market: ending more than a century of failed prohibition that has ensnared otherwise law-abiding citizens in the criminal justice system; diverting money from criminal syndicates to companies operating on the up and up; filling the state’s coffers with new tax dollars; and improving the health and safety of children by moving marijuana sales from the street to licensed stores that check IDs.”
However, Miller goes on to quote my colleague Senator Jason Lewis who chaired a special commission that recently traveled to Colorado to learn about that state’s experience with legalized marijuana. To quote the opening paragraph of Miller’s article, “For a year, state Senator Jason M. Lewis maintained strict neutrality as he studied marijuana legalization — interviewing 50-plus experts, scouring the research, and observing firsthand a state where it is legal. But now he is speaking out against the expected November referendum in Massachusetts.”
What have we learned from Colorado and Washington, the two states that have legalized the recreational use of marijuana?
In states that have legalized marijuana, the discrepancy between state and federal laws have resulted in some huge challenges. No insurers or banks will deal with marijuana growers or dispensaries, resulting in a high-risk, cash-based industry. These are an invitation for fraud and other illegal activities.
What about driving and smoking? We don’t have – and there is not the clear science to create – a marijuana equivalent to the legal prohibition of driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or greater. Senator Lewis concluded that this should change before legalization to ensure police have the tools to keep the public safe.
In Colorado and elsewhere, the market for edible marijuana is huge, and there are no dosage guidelines in place. Edibles like gummy bears and brownies are attractive to children and pets and the high potency of edibles has sent a number of individuals (including children) to the hospital and many household pets to the veterinary clinic.
Marijuana advocates suggest the legalization of marijuana would be the key to wiping out the black market for marijuana, but that hasn’t been the case in Colorado or Washington. If anything, legalization has given shelter to black-market dealers and black-market marijuana is still widely available, compromising both the attempts to regulate and to tax the industry.
There is some evidence that legalization has significantly increased youth access to and attitudes about marijuana. While many studies suggest that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol it is clear that, at very least, we’ll need an education campaign and a regulatory framework in place before we declare open season on marijuana sales.
All this gives me pause. I’ll certainly devote one of my fall “OPEN HOUSE” forums to this question, with guests speaking to both sides of the question. But for now, what do you think?